CLEMSON — A week after the Clemson football team returned to the Upstate with plenty to prove following a close, messy win at Texas A&M, the Tigers took care of business Saturday when Week 3 rolled around at Death Valley.
The Tigers clobbered Georgia Southern 38-7 Saturday afternoon in a game moved up by three hours due to Hurricane Florence, and in the meantime, they started to answer some questions, too. Clemson's defense looked more consistent, and the offense, which ran just 59 plays in Week 2, ran 77 in Week 3.
A breezy win that was never in doubt, the Tigers now move on into conference play with a road trip to Georgia Tech this week and all signs point toward quarterback Kelly Bryant being healthy enough to play. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen is also working through a rolled ankle that should be OK.
As they do so, here are seven factors to take away from Saturday's rout:
1. Kelly Bryant's status
Bryant, Clemson's senior starting quarterback, went down in the second quarter Saturday when he took a hit to the chest. He only played one more series after sustaining the injury and then was out for the rest of the game. Clemson initially said Bryant had a chest bruise, then coach Dabo Swinney clarified Sunday evening that it was more so a hit to the chest that affected Bryant's breathing than it was an actual internal bruise. Swinney said Bryant will indeed practice Monday and will be in a green jersey reserved for non-contact players, but Clemson's quarterbacks are not hit in practice anyway, so nothing changes in that regard. Once Bryant's breathing sped up, medical personnel gave him an EKG, which looks at a person's heart rate and heart rhythm. They also had him undergo a CT scan to make sure no air was trapped. Swinney said Bryant looked good Saturday night and the coach indicated that barring anything unexpected, Bryant should be ready to go at Georgia Tech.
"I don't see any reason why (not)," Swinney said when asked if Bryant will practice the rest of the week. "He felt like his breathing was way out of whack ... but he's good. And he played well."
2. Justyn Ross showed up
Justyn Ross, the Clemson freshman wide receiver who was the top recruit out of the state Alabama, had coaches buzzing all summer long. Whether it was a one-handed catch in a scrimmage or his freakish athletic ability coming out on a daily basis, he was always doing something. On Saturday, he had three catches for 103 yards that included a 57-yarder that looked like an NFL score more than it did a touchdown from a teenager. As he gets more opportunities and learns Clemson's system better, Ross can and will be a huge threat.
3. Offensive line still needs work
The first-string offensive line was not nearly as consistent as Clemson would have liked, which was evident when it took the Tigers four downs to score from the 2-yard line in the second quarter. Swinney yanked that group afterward to send a message.
"To be honest, I felt like some of the backups did a better job when they were in there," said co-offensive coordinator Jeff Scott. "They might have been a little more hungry, I don't know."
In offensive line injury news, sophomore Cade Stewart left the game with a hip bruise, though Swinney is also optimistic about him.
"He's made of gristle," Swinney said. "Cade was a little better (Sunday). Hopeful with him as we go through the week."
4. Huegel still getting back into regular form
Greg Huegel, Clemson's place-kicker, is typically automatic when it comes to the field goals Clemson asks him to hit. But Saturday, he missed two of three: one from 39 yards and one from 47 yards. The only one he hit was a 37-yarder. As he continues to return from an ACL injury in 2017, Clemson is going to need the redshirt senior to be more consistent.
"We're going to need some of those points, and I just think he needs to get out there and get some game action," Swinney said. "He hit them good. I don't think he mishit anything. They just didn't go through the pipes."
5. Thomas next in line
Had either Austin Bryant or Clelin Ferrell headed to the NFL in April, as many thought they would, perhaps it would not be out of the question to assume freshman Xavier Thomas would be contending for a starting role right now. Thomas, a five-star and a top 3 high school player from a season ago, continues to impress with how physical he is and how he knows where to be at any given moment. On Saturday, he picked up his first career sack.
"l'll tell you: that Xavier Thomas, man," Swinney said. "Wow."
6. Third down improvement
Two weeks after Clemson went 5 for 12 on third down in Week 1 against Furman and one week after the Tigers went 4 for 13 in the same category at Texas A&M, Saturday was an improvement. Clemson converted seven of its 12 third downs against the Eagles.
7. Silly mistakes won't fly in conference play
Clemson still needs to be more disciplined. The Tigers had seven penalties for 65 yards, which included a 15-yard personal foul. The Eagles had just four penalties for 20 yards despite being a much less talented team. As Clemson goes into conference play as Atlantic Division enemy No. 1, teams will live to pounce on carelessness.
"I just wanted to make sure that we came out of this game with the mindset that we need to go play conference ball," Swinney said.